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GMC’s private health perk demands public debate

GPs were left reeling after Pulse revealed that GMC staff receive private medical insurance, writes Dr Krishna Korlipara – and the regulator must take heed.

The news that the GMC has been paying nearly £280,000 towards private health insurance for 480 members of its staff will cause incredulity among many GPs and members of the public across the country.

The GMC is funded by an annual membership fee of £420 towards registration of doctors' qualifications and regulation of the profession. The profession foots the bill almost in its entirety to help the GMC cover costs associated with the maintenance of premises in London and Manchester, staff salaries and the expenses necessarily incurred by members of the council, fitness to practise panellists and the legal team. The latest revelation about the provision of private medical insurance to staff funded by the doctors' membership fees raises a fundamental question about the appropriate use of funds by the GMC – which is also registered as a charity.

The disclosure by the GMC that it has been paying for private medical insurance for its staff since 1997 will take many doctors by surprise. As a former GMC Council member, I do not recall any time when this question was ever debated in the council before the decision was made to introduce this perk. The decision may have been taken quite legitimately by the resources or the finance committee, consisting of a small number of council members and a few key members of staff, but all decisions taken by any committee or sub-committee of the council should be reported to the next council meeting for general debate and approval, or appropriate amendment. In the light of the current disclosure, I think the medical profession would like to hear if such a debate has ever taken place in the council, either in 1997 or subsequently.

A reasonable perk?

The question now is whether the GMC should be spending money towards providing private medical insurance when healthcare facilities are available on the NHS for all residents of the UK.

All staff members should be paid salaries commensurate with their expertise and qualifications, but the addition of perks raises important questions about what kinds of inducements are acceptable to attract staff.

The argument that extra incentives are needed in addition to an attractive salary to attract the best staff is fundamentally flawed. Bankers have been highly paid and given lots of perks, and we know how that has worked out.

The offer of private medical insurance to staff by a regulatory body like the GMC is unreasonable, not least because it undermines confidence in the NHS. Of course, any individual can take out private medical cover if such arrangements suit them. That would be a matter of individual choice, not a corporate facility.

Doctors across the UK will welcome the GMC's reduction in fees from April, from £420 to £390 per annum. It comes just a

few years after a big increase in costs when the GMC split its investigatory and adjudicatory functions to avoid a conflict of interest.

This reduction in fees, however, should not distract us from the central argument of whether it is appropriate to offer such a perk to employees when the doctors funding the organisation may not themselves be able to afford such a luxury.

I strongly believe that this matter should be discussed urgently at an open council meeting in order to keep the profession and the public fully informed of the arguments in the chamber. An open debate is essential for continued confidence in the GMC.

Dr Krishna Korlipara is a GP in Bolton, Lancashire, and was a member of GMC Council from 1983 to 2008